Google has decided to shut down Stadia (the cloud-based video game streaming service they launched in 2019), and it’s already clear that few people are surprised by that seemingly surprising announcement. Honestly, those most surprised by that news are probably the people who had no idea that Google even offered a cloud-based video game streaming service called Stadia. Indeed, in their official explanation for why Stadia is shutting down, Google plainly states that they weren’t able to get enough people to use the service.
“A few years ago, we also launched a consumer gaming service, Stadia,” reads a post on the Google blog. “And while Stadia’s approach to streaming games for consumers was built on a strong technology foundation, it hasn’t gained the traction with users that we expected so we’ve made the difficult decision to begin winding down our Stadia streaming service.”
To be clear, this is as complete of a shutdown of a major service as you’re likely to see. Google will even be “refunding all Stadia hardware purchases made through the Google Store, and all game and add-on content purchases made through the Stadia store” (though users will still be able to access their library through January 18, 2023). That’s quite the turnaround for a company that recently publically assured Stadia users that it will not be shutting down the service and that they’re “always working on bringing more great games to the platform and Stadia Pro.”
So what’s changed since then? Well…nothing, really, and that’s kind of the point. It will be interesting to hear the full story of how Stadia failed once those closest to the project start to speak, but in the minds of many of those who have been following Stadia since its inception, this move was pretty much inevitable.
Stadia’s Technology Was Actually Its Greatest Strength
To be clear, Stadia did “work.” The service was designed to stream games to your desktop, laptop, or mobile device (regardless of the power of the device you’re using) and it did just that. Granted, there are always going to be some technical problems when you’re streaming games through the cloud, but Stadia fundamentally functioned roughly as it should. If you wanted to play Red Dead Redemption 2 on your phone, Stadia allowed you to do that.
Actually, some of the best impressions of Stadia were the service’s first impressions. The idea of being able to access the biggest modern games without having to own a specific piece of hardware was undeniably appealing. After all, pretty much every other entertainment medium has freed itself of the confines of a specific piece of hardware. Why not games?
The problem is that Google Stadia never really grew beyond that good first impression.
Despite Appearances, Google Stadia Was Really Just a Bad Video Game Console
In a perfect world, Google Stadia would have been that alternative to modern video game consoles that I alluded to above. In this world, though, Google Stadia was really just a bad video game console in a different form.
Right from the start, it was clear that one of the biggest problems with Stadia was the fact that the service only worked with games specifically designed for Stadia. In other words, you couldn’t just play the games you already owned via Steam or some other marketplace via Stadia. You had to own the Stadia version of the game, which meant developers also had to make special Stadia versions of their games in the first place.
I truly believe you can trace Stadia’s failures back to that decision. Technologically speaking, Stadia was a pretty good (sometimes great) service. The problem is that Google was so determined to join the ranks of Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo that they refused to let people simply treat Stadia as a technologically impressive service. They eventually came around to that way of thinking, but it was far too late to make anything of that pivot. Instead, Google spent much of Stadia’s short lifespan trying to convince users to join an ecosystem that few people ever really believed would last for long. Honestly, I’m not sure that Google ever believed in the service themselves.
Stadia Never Had the Exclusives (or Support) It Needed
To be clear, Google has said most of the right things over the years when it comes to how much they support the Stadia platform and the entire idea of the service. However, I’ve personally always gotten the impression that Stadia never really got the full support it needed to grow into something special.
To me, the biggest sign of Google’s hesitations regarding Stadia was the service’s lack of notable exclusives. Say what you will about the “ethics” of exclusive games, but they’re a big part of the industry. Pretty much every successful console/service in gaming history has launched with a notable exclusive. There’s a reason why the term “system seller” exists.
Stadia had exclusives, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me that games like GYLT or PixelJunk Raiders made anyone excited about Stadia. Hideo Kojima reportedly tried to pitch a Death Stranding follow-up to Stadia, but that discussion reportedly ended when Stadia General Manger Phil Harrison realized that he was pitching a single-player game. Given that we’re seemingly going to “lose” those games when Stadia shuts down, though, maybe it’s best that Google didn’t push to acquire more notable Stadia exclusives.
There are several reasons why Stadia lacked strong exclusives, and you would certainly have to put concerns about the service’s reach/future and the frustrating process of developing games for that service at the top of that list. However, it also must be said that Google never seemed too big on the idea of spending the money required to secure proper Stadia exclusives.
Indie developers claimed that Google regularly low-balled them when it came to offers for Stadia versions of their titles, and Google wasted no time shutting down their own Stadia development studio, Stadia Games and Entertainment. There were reportedly talks about Google acquiring outside studios to develop Stadia titles, but it really sounds like those studios saw the writing on the wall.
You just get the feeling that Google was always hesitant to properly invest in the growth and success of Stadia until they saw evidence that the service was already a success. That’s not a great environment to grow in, especially when you’re trying to push such a new idea.
Of course, Google was very interested in spending the money needed to convince big-name developers to bring their games to Stadia. They reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars to get games like Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Cyberpunk 2077 on Stadia. While Google obviously needed those big games to legitimize the Stadia service, their focus on Triple-A titles highlights one of the other big issues with the Stadia concept.
Ultimately, Google Stadia Tried to Appeal to Gamers Who Weren’t Asking For It
In some ways, Google’s apparent obsession with getting big-name developers to bring their biggest titles to Stadia did make sense. Imagine if Xbox or PlayStation said, “We actually decided we don’t need the next Assassin’s Creed game on our platform.” Just look at the war that’s being raged over the rights to future Call of Duty games right now. Those games absolutely matter.
The problem was that people either already owned those games on some other platform or intended to buy them for the platform they already owned. Were there people out there who thought “I want to play Red Dead Redemption 2, but I can only afford the game and not the hardware to play it on”? Absolutely. Were there enough of those people out there to support a service designed to address that problem? Apparently not. If there were, Google did a bad job of letting them know Stadia existed in the first place.
Yet, it’s Cyberpunk 2077 that showcases the extent of Stadia’s failures. At launch, Stadia offered arguably the best way to play Cyberpunk 2077 outside of an incredibly expensive gaming PC. Yet, relatively few people looking for the optimal Cyberpunk 2077 experience decided to buy the game for that platform. Mind you, Stadia’s hardware-free next-gen performance was supposed to be one of its biggest selling point. Furthermore, anyone who wanted to give that game a shot on that service simply had to buy a title they were already planning on buying. The problem was that most gamers who had already invested in some other gaming hardware just weren’t interested in investing in a service they didn’t technically need and seemingly didn’t really believe. Again, there are quite a few people out there who just didn’t know Stadia existed in the first place.
From top-to-bottom, Stadia was seemingly designed to appeal to users who either straight up didn’t want/need it or never felt compelled to give it a shot even if they didn’t already own a competitive alternative. You can say a lot about Stadia’s inherent problems (the poor design of the Stadia controller, high internet speed requirements, the issues we mentioned above, etc.), but at the end of the day, Stadia was trying to reach people who looked for a reason to care about the service and came up short.
By the time Xbox and Nvidia started offering expanded cloud streaming options, it was clear to pretty much everyone that Stadia was finished. Google often makes impressive pieces of technology, and Stadia was certainly that. However, like so many other shuttered Google products and services, Google’s technology ultimately failed because of Google’s fundamental misunderstanding of the market they were trying to enter. Few wanted to wear Google Glasses on their face, few felt the need to use Google Dictionary over the perfectly fine dictionary that already existed, and few gamers ever really had a desire to give Stadia a shot over services and products they already knew and were more confident were still going to be there in just a few years time.